The Queen’s headscarves, models’ too skinny backs, and how men are like Homer Simpson were just a few of the topics Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, fiction writer and biographer of Coco Chanel, discussed with Colin McDowell, Times and Business of Fashion contributor at the Victoria & Albert Museum to promote his latest book: The Anatomy of Fashion: Why we dress the way we do.
As two representatives of a fashion world that’s often presented as cutthroat, it was refreshing to see two speakers who were both gifted and friendly. As Picardie introduced him, McDowell helped himself to some water and filled her glass. After the event, as he was signing books, she stayed in the room and talked to the line of people which had formed, answering questions about how to become a fashion journalist, a question she must have answered a hundred times before.
After hearing Lionel Shriver at the Soho Literary Festival, I was a bit weary at the idea of hearing two of my favourite fashion writers in real life. Picardie introduced McDowell as an “entertaining observer of fashion” in the midst of “a lot of bad fashion writing” with “a true understanding of the history of fashion”. This understanding was on full display throughout the talk as they went through dozens of images of people, commenting here on the significance of a hat, there the role of an epaulette. “Fashion alights on various erogenous zones of the body, including shoulders”, McDowell reminded the audience.
All the pictures were taken from The Anatomy of Fashion, a coffee-table book about the interaction between fashion and the body. McDowell explained that the idea came from the body, an under-explored yet constant presence in fashion. Acknowledging the fashion world’s fascination with young bodies, he explained he had become more and more interested in the topic as his own had become more and more decrepit getting him the first, and far from last, laughs of the evening.
Picardie and McDowell kicked of by talking about the head, lamenting the disappearance of the hat after World War II. Picardie, who has just updated her book Coco Chanel: the Legend and the Life, recalled that the French designer had started as a milliner and that, towards the end of her life, she was never seen without a hat, possibly because of the scars caused by a Swiss facelift that went awry.
Chanel was a recurrent theme throughout the talk. When McDowell claimed that no biographer had ever revealed all about her life, Picardie took mock offence, reminding him she had. Later on, when the discussion moved on to dresses, Picardie explained how subservient Chanel’s use of black had been. It wasn’t just the colour of mourning, seen across Europe on WWI widows, it was also what judges and hangmen wore, the colour of gravitas and uniforms. By mixing black dresses with white collars, an association Chanel picked up in the convent where she was raised, the designer made her wealthy customers resemble their maids.
Chanel wasn’t the only public figure associated with black and hats, Jackie Kennedy – from JFK’s funeral to her love of pillbox hats – was also mentioned. For McDowell, the fact that Kennedy made the pillbox hat so iconic turned it into her own crown, meaning no one else at the time could wear it. To this day, a pillbox hat is shorthand for the First Lady’s style.
As crowns go, you can’t find a better association nowadays than HRH Elizabeth II. Yet McDowell had selected a picture of the Queen wearing a Hermes headscarf. The monarch rides every morning with headscarves rather than a riding hat, apparently to the horror of her courtiers. Both speakers took her action as a sign of freedom and subversion, the Queen’s very own brand of rebellion.
Kennedy took quite a bit of advice from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, a fashion legend McDowell knew and qualified as “scary”. Speaking about Vreeland, he demonstrated his skills as a storyteller, talking for instance of the time she had told him any woman going shopping with her best friend was stupid.
He also talked about a fashion editorial he had done in India about 20 years ago with Naomi Campbell. The editorial featured models in distressed jeans and worn-out tops, as was the fashion of the time. His disgust at the fact that “we all want to look like we’re pooh in the West” was palpable when he reminisced about the faces of the locals who had expected Campbell to turn up decked out as a princess.
Vreeland wasn’t the only legendary editor McDowell got to know during his career. He also spoke warmly of Isabella Blow who, despite her lack of education, could capture the essence of a period. One of his main regrets about Blow seemed to be that she never got round to writing about fashion.
Agreeing with Picardie that a lot of fashion legend is based on lies, an issue both, as journalists, must be confronted with regularly, McDowell explained he never really believes designers who talk about how they remember their mother dressing to go to the ball as their first fashion emotion. But then building a world and selling is what fashion brands is all about. No reader, no customer wants the truth, just excitement.
Although most of the talk focused on women’s fashion, McDowell has also included photographs of men and men’s style in his book. During his writing career, whilst exploring trends and fashion history, he has discovered that men don’t wear overt fashion and always put comfort first. “Men want to look like they just stepped out of The Simpsons” is how he summarised it.